09/11/2013 04:52 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

'Corporate Responsibility' Has to Get Personal to Have Meaning

More than 25 years ago, the teenage son of a long-term employee in our company died. Don worked across the hall from me for many years. He was a quiet, dedicated employee. He was a talented buyer, a good man who never really asked for anything.

When the child of someone close to you dies, there's no human way to assess the amount of grief such a loss causes. But I knew as a company we had to do something that would honor his son's memory, and after considerable discussion, we chose to start a road race and use the proceeds to create a scholarship in David's name. Because so many people in the company wanted to express how they felt, we knew the road race would be a success.

This is how "corporate responsibility" works in a family-run company. The process is collegial, and everyone shares in the effort and the giving, which is why I prefer to think in terms of "community responsibility."

That first year of the Bigelow Tea Community Challenge 5K race, 50 people participated (almost all employees), and we raised $3,000 in David's honor. Over the past 26 years, this annual event, which will be held on Sunday, Sept. 29, has undergone a marvelous evolution that is a testament to the enduring spirit of charity shared by our community and our employees.

Participation has increased from 50 people in 1987 to more than 1,200 men, women, and children. And since its inception, the Community Challenge has raised more than $800,000 through the dedication of countless employees, residents and runners.

Moreover, our commitment as a company to this special event is just as strong today as it was in the beginning, when I ran in the first race (which, by the way, was on my wedding day!). This year we expect to raise close to $120,000, which now goes to 17 local organizations.

Our employees help organize and conduct the Community Challenge. Many also participate in what has become three events -- a 5K Road Race, a two-mile Fitness Walk and a Kids' Fun Race. In fact, many young high school track athletes in our town got their start in our race, which inspired a love of running in them.

Local charities benefit from the event, including the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, which provides shelter and meals for guests and the working poor; Cardinal Shehan Center; Center for Women & Families; Caroline House, whose mission is to help women and children; the Connecticut Food Bank; Fairfield Senior Center; the Norma F. Pfriem Breast Care Center; and the Wakeman Boys & Girls Club.

Each year, we add another non-profit to our list of recipients, and I personally visit them to discuss their needs. These organizations are often struggling to provide their clients with a better life. They don't have large staffs dedicated to fundraising nor can they afford to stage big galas. Every day brings new challenges in their mission to offer crucial services.

I'm convinced the soul of a company and a community can be measured by the generosity they show to those in need.

"Corporate responsibility" sounds like an arid, uninspiring term that you read about in annual reports. But it has to be a personal choice in the C-suite, the mailroom, the marketing department and everywhere else. As CEO of a family-owned business, I believe that a company can only do well by doing good. Clearly, we can never forget that we have an obligation to the communities where we live and work.